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February 26, 1999

AL East Notebook

Potential Breakouts and Flops for 1999

by Joe Sheehan

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

While OF Albert Belle gets most of the attention as the Orioles open camp, and can be expected to put up a typical .300/.380/.570 season, pay attention to catcher Charles Johnson, acquired from the Dodgers via the Mets for Armando Benitez. Johnson had a terrible 1998, falling off both at the plate and behind it. Look for him to bounce back and hit like he did in 1997, with a significant jump in power. A .260/.345/.480 season is well within his reach.

Even if Johnson hits like he can, it's unlikely it will be enough to overcome the aging process elsewhere on the roster. Johnson will be the only player in O's Opening Day lineup that can reasonably be expected to meet or exceed his 1998 performance. And only Mike Mussina is a good bet to be above-average in the rotation; the rosiest of optimists might hope for a bit of bounce-back from Scott Kamieniecki; with health, he can regain mediocrity. It should be a tough year by the Chesapeake. Good crabcakes, though.

BOSTON RED SOX

The Red Sox will enter 1999 with essentially the same outfield that they finished 1998 with, a recipe for disaster. While Damon Buford and Darren Lewis had career years in '98, both will certainly regress in 1999. The addition of Jose Offerman will help make up some of the shortfall, but then again, he's really supposed to be replacing that first baseman who left. All told, good years by Offerman, Nomar Garciaparra and the underrated Scott Hatteberg will only drag this offense up to average.

The pitching staff is another story. Jimy Williams did a good job with a no-name middle relief staff in 1998, and his handling of Bret Saberhagen was key to stabilizing the rotation. Saberhagen needs to be effective for the Sox to stay in the wild-card mix; to be effective, he needs to be coddled the way he was last year. This will be a big test for Williams.

NEW YORK YANKEES

Roger Clemens comes down from Toronto to give this staff what it didn't have last year: the "true" #1 starter. He'll be the main focus, and while it's probably too much to expect him to stay at his 1997-98 level, would you really be surprised if he won his sixth Cy Young?

Behind him, look for a resurgence from Andy Pettitte, who had a roller-coaster season in 1998, caused in part by arm tenderness.

While most analysts have conceded the World Series to the Yankees on the basis of their payroll, pay close attention to the offense. Only Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada can be expected to improve on their 1998 performances; Chuck Knoblauch probably will. The middle of the lineup--Paul O'Neill, Chili Davis and Tino Martinez--averages 34 years old, and a collective decline would cripple the offense.

TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS

Jose Canseco finds his way to Florida after perhaps the worst 46-homer season on record. Canseco is being hyped as the solution to the D-Rays' run-scoring problems, but he's really been reduced to a Kingmanesque hitter, with comparable defensive value. Bubba Trammell would have provided the same production at a small fraction of the cost and commitment, minus the silly press coverage.

The Rays' pitching staff was a quiet sensation last year, allowing the third-fewest runs in the American League. Both the rotation and the bullpen were effective, despite the disappointing seasons of expensive veterans Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez.

This year, while it's unlikely that surprises such as Rolando Arrojo, Julio Santana, Jim Mecir and Esteban Yan will all be as effective, I see righthander Bryan Rekar as an excellent candidate to pick up some of the slack. He was inconsistent in a half-season with Tampa Bay, but showed flashes of the pitcher he'd been before Coors beat him to death. Given a steady slot, I expect him to toss 180 innings with a 3.80 ERA.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Call off the suicide watch. The Clemens trade was a disaster, and yes, the Jays would have been better off selling him for eight cents per pound. But if there is a team north of Atlanta with the depth to soften the blow of The Rocket's takeoff, it's Toronto. By the end of the year, Joey Hamilton and Chris Carpenter will be the aces of this staff, and the Jays will be right in the middle of the wild card race.

After his breakthrough 1998, many Jays watchers will be expecting a huge year from right fielder Shawn Green. Let me be the first to sound the caution bell. Green did have a big 1998, the product of regular playing time and security post-Gaston. However, he showed the same flaws that have been part of his game for years: he doesn't hit left-handers and he doesn't walk enough. We have not have seen the best of Green yet, but a consolidation year in 1999 is probable.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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